Serengeti review – the Made in Chelsea of nature documentary

Stunning footage of wild animals is twisted into soap-worthy storylines – from baboon threesomes to lion paternity battles. What a ludicrous way to yank on our heartstrings

About a decade ago, the popular science podcast Radiolab broadcast an episode about a whale that had got tangled up in fishing netting. It was a dramatic retelling of the incident by those involved in helping the cetacean get free, and it ended on an otherworldly note: once loose, the whale did not simply leave, but made its way around each of the humans that surrounded it, as if to express gratitude for what they had done. It was a spectacular tale that has remained in my mind since. But it was followed by an animal psychologist patiently explaining that gratitude is a human emotion, and that animal behaviour is essentially incomparable. The whale was, in all likelihood, not grateful.

Serengeti (BBC One) is not having any of that. The six-part series is an attempt to reinvent the natural history format. This is a grand ambition, though an unsurprising one, given that it is the brainchild of Simon Fuller, best known for managing the Spice Girls and creating the Pop Idol franchise. This is, we are told immediately, “a dramatised story based on the real lives of Africa’s most charismatic animals”, which must make it the Made in Chelsea or Towie of nature docs. The undeniably spectacular footage has been manipulated into storylines by drama writers and given an extra flourish by music commissioned not so much to tug on viewers’ heartstrings as to yank them into submission.

Fuller has said he was inspired to make the series after he concluded that a lot of wildlife issues come from the fact that humans lack empathy with animals. Shot over two years on a private reserve, these animals are given soap-worthy storylines, narrated with careful BBC gravity by John Boyega. Kali the lioness has had cubs outside of her pride (out of pridelock?) and the male lion will kill them if he realises he’s not the baby daddy. Kali tentatively tries to return to the pride. “Do they know her secret?” purrs Boyega. No DNA test is needed. The secret is very much out even as she tries to pretend nothing’s wrong. Kali is seen off and exiled, and the music swells, as Boyega ends the scene: “She’s learning the hard way. When you fly against the wind, it’s a bumpy ride.”

Born out of pridelock? ... Kali with her cubs.
Born out of pridelock? ... Kali with her cubs. Photograph: Richard Jones/BBC/John Downer productions

The baboons get an even fancier plot. Bakari is pining for Sabira, who has left him to shack up with the brutish chief baboon, who rules the Great Rock with an iron fist. Bakari, we are told, “now spends his days brooding on the injustice of it all”. Does he? How do we know? Has he started listening to Coldplay ballads while he scratches Bakari 4 Sabira over and over in his diary?

While he tries to win her back, the hyenas are attempting to pass wisdom and courage down through the matriarchy. Mongooses are “making friends” with warthogs (their symbiosis is truly fascinating, if less chummy than this makes it seem). An adolescent elephant feels as if he’s in the shadow of his new baby brother, and does not know where he fits in any more. It’s all very EastEnders: Off to the Plains.

Despite its A-list narrator and bombastic approach, Serengeti somehow maintains the feel of an educational film for schoolchildren. It’s unfair, in one sense, to find that side of it grating, because its intentions are made clear from the beginning. It cannot be accused of being disingenuous about what it does with the footage it has taken, as certain documentaries have been in the past; Boyega is even credited as “storyteller” rather than narrator. This is documentary as theatre. I’m not saying gritty realism is always a more appealing approach, but this all-out anthropomorphism sometimes reaches beyond what it can deliver, which is a shame because, visually at least, it’s a stunner.

Just when the whiff of being talked down to threatens to overwhelm, however, the show reaches its emotional climax. It’s all very well to smother animals in human emotions, but the animal world is brutal and cruel, and cosy reconciliations are few and far between. I could feel the manipulation happening as if a puppet master were making me dance, but the death scenes – one painted as a selfless sacrifice, another as if it were the end of Titanic (“She made him brave. She gave him something to fight for”) – had an impact. At last, Serengeti began to carry me along with it. If this is entertainment, then at least it entertains.


Rebecca Nicholson

The GuardianTramp

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